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5 Tips to Improve Website Experience for People with Cognitive Disabilities

May 19, 2017

The digitization of everything is breaking down barriers and instantly connecting people across the planet.  However, not everyone has been able to join in on this new world of possibilities.

The Administration for Community Living estimates that around 8 million Americans, or 3 percent of the population, experience intellectual disabilities. That suggests that nearly 30 million people in the U.S. - 10 percent of families - are directly impacted by the struggles of people with intellectual disabilities.

Fortunately, there are guidelines on how businesses can make their online homes more welcoming for this vast cross-section of the population. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 508, and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), are the primary reference guides to these best practices. Here are some insights into who they are meant to serve.

What Does the ADA Mean by ‘Cognitive Disabilities’?

Official federal policy states, "An individual with a disability is defined by the ADA as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment. The ADA does not specifically name all of the impairments that are covered."

Section 508 requires that federal government websites and any IT that it "develops, procures, maintains, or uses" must be accessible to people with cognitive disabilities. The WCAG suggests that websites should meet standards according to four criteria: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust.

5 Tips to Make Websites More Accessible

  1. Picture a site without colors Visuals are critically significant online. A good picture can be worth well over a thousand words, but not always. For the 1 in 20 individuals with color vision deficiency, the site might not make any sense. If a website tells its stories with color, there should be additional text that provides meaning. This will make the content accessibility for more people. 
  2. Imagine other meanings for icons What symbols are being used as short-hand and what happens if the viewer doesn't share the same cultural context? The classic example is the "Save" icon in the shape of a floppy disk that went extinct more than a decade ago. What could that symbol mean to people without access to that history?
  3. Summarize whatever takes time to experience Not everyone is able to sit through a video, listen to a podcast, or understand an animation. "Time-based media" is a barrier for many people. Include text-based descriptions of the key takeaways.
  4. Balance excitement with cautionWith the increasing speed of information, websites increasingly have incorporated rapidly changing images. If this reaches the threshold of flashing three times per second, those images could be harmful to a large percentage of viewers. This includes those viewers who are susceptible to seizures.
  5. Unplug the mouse and try keyboard onlyTechnology like the Amazon Echo and Google Home may soon make the QWERTY keyboard obsolete. Until they do, make sure that everything on the page is keyboard accessible, without requiring specific timing for keystrokes. The user should be able to tab through options and fields at their own speed.

The Next Set of World-Changing Ideas

These are more than just regulations, they are good common sense rules for living in an increasingly digital world. Consider the case of Stephen Hawking: His life is a poignant symbol of how a great mind can triumph over a debilitating disease and how cognitive disabilities are just as challenging as physical ones. How many more Hawkings are struggling with accessibility for the latest digital tools? The more websites that open their doors to people with cognitive disabilities, the sooner the next world-changing ideas will emerge.

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